PBS is currently airing the six-part drama Wolf Hall, originally created for BBC2. It’s set during the reign of the Tudor king Henry VIII, a popular topic of British historical dramas, but with a unique focus. Rather than focusing on Henry himself, the focus is on Thomas Cromwell, a middle-class lawyer who quickly rose through the ranks only to fall from favor and eventually be gruesomely executed for treason.
Focus on a New Character
Dramas of this period generally focus on Henry, his six wives, and his three children (the future monarchs Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I). While Henry is certainly involved (you obviously can’t have a royal court drama without him), he is by no means the main focus (a state to which I’m sure the attention-hungry Henry would object!).
Of his wives, only Anne Boleyn is a significant character. She is wife #2, and the circumstances involved with setting aside the first wife in order for Henry to marry Anne were what first brought Cromwell to prominence. It also made England a Protestant country as it refused to recognize the pope as the supreme head the church in England.
Fresh Looks on Old Characters
The treatment of secondary characters can be quite different from other historical dramas. Because Cromwell worked for and was quite devoted to Cardinal Wolsey, for example, Wolsey gets the most flattering depiction I think he’s even gotten. Rather than focus on his political ambition, the emphasis is on his fall from the king’s grace as he fails to gain an annulment for Henry from the pope. While haughty in the face of his political enemies, here he seems truly saddened by the loss of the king’s favor, and he dies in a truly sorry state while on his way to imprisonment.
Meanwhile, Thomas More gets the least flattering depiction I’ve ever seen for him. While they do emphasize his intelligence, he’s also a bit of a wash-up after resigning from the post of Chancellor over the issue of Henry’s marriage. There’s also certainly no love lost between him and Cromwell. Finally, they touch on his support for the execution of heretics, an issue often white-washed.
More can be a hard character to write because he just so happens to be a saint not only in the Catholic Church but also in the Anglican one as well. He is recognized as a martyr for refusing to acknowledge Henry’s supremacy in the church, even though the British monarch continues to hold that position today. He was a victim of conscience, and it’s difficult to say bad things about such people.
But this is a story told from the perspective of Cromwell, so his friends are seen positively and his enemies more negatively. It’s a refreshingly new perspective on a topic that’s been a bit done to death.
Frumpy, Accurate Costuming
The costumes can look a bit frumpy, but that’s largely because of the glamor of shows like The Tudors, which took significant liberties to emphasize wealth and sex appeal. Perhaps most notable is Cromwell himself, whose initial plain black costume makes him stand out at court like the middle-class man he was. No furs, no fancy fabrics, no jewelry (things that get slowly added as he rises at court). He is, quite simply, boring to look at in comparison to everything surrounding him.
For a quick low-down on the fates of the characters, as well as a sampling of costuming, check out the Gruesome Ways Every Character in Wolf Hall Died in Real Life.
My one big complaint is that no one ever smiles, least of all the main character. (Just google “wolf hall thomas cromwell”. He’s epically dour.) It does make the whole thing a little discouraging to watch. I get that portraits of the time are generally glum, but that doesn’t mean the subjects were all doom and gloom.
Still, an occasional bit of dry, British humor can to be found in it, even if none of the characters seem to recognize it.